dianoigo blog

Thursday 18 June 2015

Form, Genre, and Historicity of the Wilderness Temptations of Jesus in the Gospels: A Response to Jonathan Burke (Part 3)

This continues a series of posts which discuss the literary background to the TS in response to two online articles by Jonathan Burke.

5.       The TS as narrative

Narrative criticism is concerned with the text of the Gospels as literature and, consequently, how features such as plot and characters combine to communicate meaning. The primary focus is not historical or form-critical in the sense of recovering the sources, form or historicity of a pericope. Instead, the primary focus is on “the formal features of a text in its finished form.”[1] Despite the widespread use of this methodology in interpreting the Gospels, including the TS, Burke inexplicably ignores it and flatly denies that the TS are narrative. In a curiously circular fashion, this assumption becomes his basis for dismissing my evidence that the TS must be read as a narrative.[2]

As an element within a wider narrative, how does the TS communicate meaning? For one, narrative critics have noted how Satan functions as a character in the story in all three Synoptic Gospels, with the TS playing a key role in this feature of the narrative.

Concerning Mark, this approach has recently been explored by Shively, who states that “Mark introduces Satan as Jesus’ adversary in the prologue, arguably establishing Satan as a key opposing power for the rest of the narrative.”[3] She holds that Mark’s Gospel presupposes the Satan figure and demonology of the LXX and Second Temple Judaism.[4]

Concerning Matthew, Branden has written an entire narrative-critical monograph on ‘Satanic Conflict in the Plot of Matthew’. He observes that “the temptations function as the beginning of Satanic challenge to Jesus’ mission,”[5] while also noting the close correspondence between the characterization of Satan in this pericope and the demonology of intertestamental Judaism.[6] Similarly, Powell states the following on conflict in Matthew:
A better understanding is gained through the realization that neither Jesus’ conflict with the religious leaders nor his conflict with his disciples is ultimately definitive of the Gospel’s plot. What this narrative is really about is conflict on a deeper level, namely, conflict between God and Satan…As the supreme agent of God, Jesus comes to save God’s people from their sin by giving his life as a ransom for many and by shedding his blood to establish a new covenant of forgiveness. Satan challenges Jesus specifically as God’s Son (4:1-11) and, indirectly, remains active throughout the story.[7]
Kingsbury states concerning Luke: 
Finally, one also encounters transcendent beings in Luke’s gospel story, such as God, angels, Satan, and demons, and the figure of the narrator. Strictly speaking, neither God nor the narrator can be said to be characters, and while Satan is alluded and referred to, in only one episode (the temptation) does he assume the more normal role of a character…Although Satan is, like God, a transcendent being, unlike God he does not remain beyond narrative sight but functions in part as one of the characters within Luke’s story (4:1-13).[8]
So also Carroll:
Both the intensity of the struggle and its cosmological import are heightened by the presence of the devil, introduced for the first time in the narrative. Luke uses the names devil (διάβολος) and Satan interchangeably for this character, and with comparable frequency, though only διάβολος appears in 4:1-13… His role in the testing narrative is reminiscent of the part played by Satan in Job, probing the character of a person. But the devil’s malevolence as the head of forces opposed to God becomes clear as the narrative proceeds.[9]
That the Gospels, in their finished form, position the TS fundamentally as events within the wider narrative about Jesus can scarcely be denied. As Bock states, Luke “simply presents the temptations as an event in Jesus’ life”.[10] Nothing in the context of Luke’s TS suggests that it departs from his stated purpose, “to compile an account… to write it out for you in consecutive order” (Luke 1:1-3 NASB); an account “about all that Jesus began to do and teach, until the day when He was taken up…” (Acts 1:1-2 NASB). As I’ve argued elsewhere, the writers fit the TS seamlessly into the narrative, with no internal indication that its characters or events are less real than other pericopae.

The TS belong to the genre of narrative within the Gospels, regardless of what view may be taken concerning their historicity. Hence, any enterprise in the discipline of biblical theology which seeks to recover the Satanology of the Synoptic Evangelists must approach the TS as narrative and, consequently, resort to narrative criticism.

6.       The TS as history

We have seen that there is general agreement that the TS is mythological. However, Nickle reminds us that “To designate a unit of Jesus tradition as myth is not to assess its historicity.”[11]

There are scholars who take a very high view of the historicity of the TS. Edwards, for example:
Jesus himself is the only plausible source of the narrative. Many modern readers, including modern Christians, find talk of the devil intellectually embarrassing. As a consequence, the temptation is commonly interpreted metaphorically. Ancient Jews, however, believed in an evil force, both superhuman and personal, that contended with and distorted God’s created ideal. They believed this power to be real, although not ultimate. We know that Jesus shared this belief, and we cannot doubt that Luke shared it. The temptation narrative is not presented as a dream, vision, myth, or parable, but as a historical occurrence in which an intentional and deadly earnest personification of evil attempts, using both natural and supernatural means, to mislead the incarnate Son of God from his salvific mission in the world.[12]
While many scholars would dispute the extent to which the TS describes actual historical events verbatim, there does seem to be support for the idea that has a basis in actual historical events:
There appears to be reasonable evidence that the temptation story does have a kernel of authentic tradition (Murphy-O’Connor; Allison). Perhaps Jesus communicated such visionary experiences to his disciples in a teaching context pertaining to temptations and the coming peirazmos or eschatological testing that was approaching (Twelftree 822-823). The authenticity of the story would also account for other traditions including Mark 3:27, Luke 10:18, Jesus’ belief in the presence of the kingdom, and the call for a return to pre-Edenic conditions, e.g. Mark 10:2-9 (Davies and Allison: 1.357).[13]
What seems to be beyond historical doubt in the minds of most scholars is that Jesus and the Gospel writers believed in Satan as a supernatural being. As Towner puts it:
the narrators of the Gospels and Jesus himself seem to have had a lively sense of an evil spiritual being who stood at the head of all demonic powers and who was able to enter into human hearts and to challenge the influence of God there.[14]

A large number of other modern sources which conclude that Jesus and the Synoptic writers believed in Satan and demons can be found in my paper on the accommodation theory.

Bock notes that the criterion of dissimilarity may support the historicity of the narrative, since temptation stories of this kind played no obvious role in the early church.[15] He also warns against divorcing symbolism from history (a warning which has gone unheeded in Burke's case). Moreover, as Gibson points out, in the Beelzebul pericope (the historicity of which is generally accepted), Jesus alludes to an earlier victory over Satan which is best understood to be a reference to the wilderness temptations (Matt. 12:29/Mark 3:27/Luke 11:21-22).[16]

However, the TS still remains problematic from a historical point of view because of its clear supernatural elements. Ehrman states in a similar context (Jesus’ exorcisms) that the ‘supernatural realm’ lies “outside of the historian’s province,” and consequently, “historians can’t say that Jesus actually cast evil spirits out of people.”[17] For many historical critics, such methodological assumptions rule out the possibility of judging the TS as historical.

Similar problems apply to the other Gospel stories that Dibelius regarded as mythological in genre, namely the baptism of Jesus and the transfiguration. Kvalbein notes a parallel between the baptismal miracle and the TS:
The stories of the theophany at Jesus’ baptism have no references to witnesses except Jesus himself and John. In this regard they are similar to the temptation stories, presented as an experience between Jesus and the devil, with no others present.[18]

He states the two prevailing views of the historicity of the theophany at Jesus’ baptism. The first is that it is a non-historical creation of the early church, and the second is that it is a tradition based on Jesus’ personal experience at his baptism, e.g. “a vision Jesus had in connection with his baptism.”

As for the transfiguration, Poirier notes,
For many, anything so otherworldly cannot be historical, and the account must be explained either as a heightening of tendencies latent within a more authentic report of as a wholecloth invention.[19]
He adds that some ascribe the account to “real religious experiences” while ducking the question of whether ‘real’ “refers to objective or subjective categories.”

We can see that the historical problems bound up with the TS are very similar to those in these other two pericopae. In all cases a transcendent being palpably interacts with the human sphere. There are, in each case, three basic positions that scholars may take. The first regards the event as a historical fact. The second regards it as purely symbolic, with no historical foundation. The third, intermediate position allows for some rhetorical license but regards the pericope as based on a historical “experience” of some kind, such as a vision.[20]

The third position is perhaps the most sensible for a historian to take in all three cases. However, for a reader who regards the supernatural worldview of the early church as normative, there is no reason why these historical "experiences" may not be seen as rooted in objective reality, and thus tantamount to historical facts.

[1] Resseguie, J.L. (2005). Narrative Criticism of the New Testament: An Introduction. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 19. Emphasis added.
[2] Burke seems to take the formal resemblance of the TS to ‘haggadic midrash’ as final proof that they are not narrative. He then summarily dismisses all the evidence I adduced that the Gospel TS only make sense when read as narrative, rather than interacting with this material. See here for an overview of this evidence.
[3] Shively, E. (2015). Characterizing the Non-Human: Satan in the Gospel of Mark. In M.R. Hauge & C.W. Skinner (Eds.), Character Studies and the Gospel of Mark (pp. 127-151). London: Bloomsbury. Here pp. 127-128.
[4] Shively 2015: 136-137.
[5] Branden, R.C. (2006). Satanic Conflict and the Plot of Matthew. Bern: Peter Lang, p. 55.
[6] Branden 2006: 43.
[7] Powell, M.A. (1990). What is Narrative Criticism? Minneapolis: Fortress Press, pp. 47-48.
[8] Kingsbury, J.D. (1991). Conflict in Luke: Jesus, Authorities, Disciples. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, pp. 9, 13.
[9] Carroll, J.T. (2012). Luke: A Commentary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 102.
[10] Bock, D.L. (1994). Luke (Vol. 1). Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, p. 366.
[11] Nickle, K.F. (2001). The Synoptic Gospels: An Introduction. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, p. 29.
[12] Edwards, J.R. (2015). The Gospel according to Luke. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, p. 131.
[13] Bird, M.F. (2014). Temptation of Jesus. In C.A. Evans (Ed)., Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus (pp. 638-640). New York: Routledge. Here pp. 639-640.
[14] Towner, W.S. (2003). Satan. In D.E. Gowan (Ed.), The Westminster Theological Wordbook of the Bible (pp. 447-449). Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press. Here p. 448.
[15] Bock 1994: 364.
[16] Gibson 2004: 93; so also Best, E. (1965). The Temptation and the Passion: The Markan Soteriology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 14; Jeremias, J. (1977). New Testament Theology: The proclamation of Jesus (G. Bowden, trans.) New York: Scribner’s Sons, p. 72.
[17] Ehrman, B.D. (1999). Jesus: Apocalyptic Prophet of the New Millennium. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 197-198.
[18] Kvalbein, H. (2014). Baptism of Jesus. In C.A. Evans (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus (pp. 55-58). New York: Routledge. Here p. 57.
[19] Poirier, J.C. (2014). Transfiguration of Jesus. In C.A. Evans (Ed.), Encyclopedia of the Historical Jesus (pp. 653-656). New York: Routledge. Here p. 655.
[20] These three scholarly positions, with respect to the TS, are described by Schiavo 2002: 142-143.